Monday, February 16, 2009

FROM MY SEAT: Starry Nights at The Racquet Club?

Posted By on Mon, Feb 16, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Buy low, sell high. It's the first, and maybe most important, rule of finance. And it would seem the new owners of The Racquet Club of Memphis -- and with it this week's twin events, the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships and the Cellular South Cup -- took the rule to heart. As ambitious as the new ownership -- California-based Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment and their local partners, Golden Set Holdings (led by ad execs Doug Carpenter and Brian Sullivan) -- may be, they clearly have taken on a once-proud event clinging to the fringe of interest beyond the loyal members of The Racquet Club and the local tennis community. In the same venue that has seen no fewer than nine men ranked year-end number-one in the world raise a championship trophy, this week's RMKC will boast only two players in the world's top 10: Andy Roddick (#6) and Juan Martin del Potro (#7).

The decline in Q rating for the Memphis tournament - first played in 1977, when Bjorn Borg was crowned champion -- is hardly for a lack of effort, particularly on the part of the club's previous owner, Mac Winker. The tournament has raised millions of dollars for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and included St. Jude in its title for 12 years (1993-2004). Just this year, the event gained status as one of ten "500-level" tournaments. (Top-ranked players are required to play in roughly half the 500-level events on the calendar.) Even better, presumably, in the eyes of the best players in the world, prize money in Memphis has increased more than 50 percent this year, to $1.1 million.

So where are the big boys? The greatest player of this generation, Switzerland's Roger Federer, has yet to make his Memphis debut. The same goes for Spain's Rafael Nadal, the current top-ranked player in the world. Perhaps their glaring absence over the years has more to do with geography than the declining status of our local tournament. (Crossing the Atlantic for Memphis in February has been a tough pitch for travel agents since before Federer and Nadal were born.) As the upper tier of the world's tennis rankings grows more and more international (Serbia's Novak Djokovic, England's Andy Murray, and Russia's Nikolay Davydenko round out the top five), the more challenging it becomes for the RMKC leadership to put the very best under the reflective light of The Racquet Club's center court.

Which brings us back to this year's event, where the tournament's marketing campaign was centered around Pete Sampras, the winner of more Grand Slam events (14) than any player in history . . . and a player retired from the ATP Tour for over six years now. When an exhibition match becomes the centerpiece for a week of tennis, reflection is in order. (It should be noted Sampras' exhibition match with Lleyton Hewitt will raise money for St. Jude. The tournament's heart is in the right place.)

It's not quite a rule of finance, though maybe it should be: sex sells. And no sport, over the generations, has been sexier at its heights than tennis. Whether it's Jimmy Connors grabbing his crotch between Wimbledon titles or Andre Agassi managing to make fans swoon first with locks below his shoulder blades then completely bald, the sport has demanded personality from its champions in ways that golf and motor sports, for instance, do not. (Three-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson sells hammers and nails for Lowe's, but you won't see him hosting Saturday Night Live anytime soon.) The sexy rule has been especially prevalent on the women's side. For evidence, just pick up a copy of this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. You'll see three WTA pros (no Grand Slam title among them), each wearing much less than a tennis skirt. Even a first-round exit by Russian beauty Maria Sharapova -- on the sidelines these days with an injury -- would do more for the Cellular South Cup than favorites Caroline Wozniacki or Victoria Azarenka could with a title run. Alas, there will be nary a top-10 women's player at The Racquet Club this week.

Tennis remains a gorgeous sport, sexy or otherwise. And the RMKC is merely symptomatic in a nationwide malaise when it comes to the game at its highest level. When last month's Australian Open announced its seeds, there were exactly three American men among the 32 highest-ranked players. Over the last 33 Grand Slam events, American men have won but four (and only one of those by a currently active player, Roddick). Perhaps American tennis needs its own Tiger Woods. Black or white, a transcendent star who will make the golf and NASCAR sets turn their attention back to tennis, even in mid-February.

Here's hoping he comes along in time to save the Memphis tournament.

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